Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts

by Anne Barstow


* * * * *

Did we like it?


For Feminist


Book Review

It is really exciting to see the interest in the witch hunts happening in mainstream culture right now because this topic has for too long been ignored by history.  With all the new books that our out on witches, our book club chose Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s book, Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts with the subtitle Our Legacy of Violence Against Women.  She begins immediately discussing how many witch hunt researchers continue to neglect gender politics when discussing the widespread persecution of women for heresy.  The legacy of hatred and violence towards women has not been the main focus for much research on the topic, and it has not been referenced as a historical framework for understanding the increase in violence and backlash towards women that are now speaking out against misogyny and harassment in the wake of the #metoo movement and the resurgence of the feminist movement.  


According to Barstow, the three factors that have been ignored are gender analysis, the high degree of physical violence, and the sexual nature of the violence towards women (1). She estimates that 100 hundred thousand people (80%women) were executed over a roughly 200 hundred-year period (Barstow 23). From a feminist perspective, Barstow looks at this phenomenon (across various parts of Europe and the U.S.) as an attack on women’s sexuality, but more importantly their power in their communities.  Women were scapegoats for social and economic matters, and they were controlled by the patriarchal structure of the court system (religious and secular) that only recognized them as separate, legal beings from their husbands in order to prosecute them as witches.


When Barstow looks at why women were targeted more than men, she shows how the belief in supernatural powers pervades the middle ages, but women’s access to and agency in herbal remedies, magic potions, midwifery, and wet-nursing becomes threatening to Christianity and the state that uses religion to control the people.  Women of all ages and social classes were targeted for various reasons. Wealthier, educated and outspoken women were targeted for their property or their social position. Wise women with special knowledge and leadership roles in the community were killed.  Old and poor women were killed for the burdens they bore to the public. Sexually forward women were accused along with mothers and daughters, children of witches, and on and on.


Barstow also analyzes the structure of the witchcraft accusations, such as the fantastical crimes women were accused of committing and to which they were expected to confess, the sexual nature of the search for the devil’s mark, and the extremely brutal torture women had to endure even before they were sentenced to death.  The brutal reality is that, “…women were accused primarily by men, tried by male juries, examined by male searchers, sentenced by male judges, tortured by male jailers, burned to death by male executioners—while being prayed over by male confessors” (9). The stories she tells in the book are difficult to hear, but necessary in order to really understand what was being done to women and how such extreme violence was being justified by religious, patriarchal authority.   Barstow’s chapter “From Healers to Witches” looks at women’s long respected roles in medicine, healing, midwifery and how these roles threatened priests, but also the rising, educated male physician and the institution of medicine. This discussion feeds nicely into her chapters “Controlling Women’s Bodies” and “Keeping Women in their Place” as women are victimized and criminalized for their sexuality by the clergy and the state. Women are viewed as less than human, and their natural bodily functions and anatomy used as evidence of coercion by the devil.  As a result, women’s bodies are mutilated and fear pervades. No wonder women are still feeling the deep wounds of disconnect and reticence from this inherited, epigenetic trauma.

Why these ratings?

Absolutely!  Understanding the widespread persecution of women for hundreds of years is essential for awakening to our past traumas.   Why do we feel disconnected from our bodies and ashamed to seek pleasure? Why do we feel such a deep loss of empowerment over our own bodies?  Why do we know so little about our own sexual anatomy? Why are women marginalized into the nursing field for lower pay and criminalized for any attempt to practice medicinal healing outside of the mainstream medical and pharmaceutical industries?  The answers to these questions emerge from Barstow’s book with clarity, which is important if women are to heal these old wounds and bring feminism back into balance.


Leave a Comment or Book Review